In October 2014, California learned that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) natural gas operations in the state had illegally injected toxic wastewater into aquifers.[i] The EPA allows oil and gas companies to dispose of waste waters used for injection during the fracking process by re-injecting them into “exempt” aquifers, which contain water that is not safe for human consumption.[ii] However, the incidents in California involved the injection of waste water into “non-exempt” aquifers which provide water that is safe for human uses ranging from drinking water to agriculture.[iii] Water-supply wells located near wastewater disposal sites were also found to contain dangerous chemicals in the fracking process according to the California Central Valley Water Board.[iv] Fracking waste fluid presents an environmental and public health risk because it includes many carcinogenic and harmful ingredients, such as heavy metals, benzene, lead, and arsenic. [v] Communities close to the polluted aquifers stopped using their well water due to fear of illness.[vi] The environmental and economic effects of fracking and current trend of lower oil prices, however, raise questions about the viability of the fracking industry.
Even if EPA guidelines are followed, fracking has additional negative implications affecting water availability. Water is an especially important resource in California because of the frequency of drought and economic importance of the agricultural industry. Currently, over thirty-seven million California residents are affected by drought[vii]. The fracking process can use approximately 140,000 to 150,000 gallons of water on a daily basis. [viii] The waste water, which contains chemicals, cannot be made safe for human consumption or agricultural purposes. In November 2014, the California Department of Conservation permitted fracking companies to “pump nearly three billion gallons of waste water into underground aquifers that could have been used for drinking water or irrigation”[ix] due to mistakes in the permitting process.[x]
Other states that allow fracking are also learning about the harsh realities associated with the process. In Wyoming, a fracking well gas leak caused the evacuation of nearly seventy people from their homes because of the risk of an explosion.[xi] In August 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection revealed nearly 250 contamination cases associated with fracking, which included incidents such as “methane gas contamination, wastewater spills, and wells that simply went dry or undrinkable.”[xii] In April 2014, a Texas family won a three million dollar judgment from a fracking company located close to their home after suffering from symptoms including rashes and nose bleeds.[xiii]
After numerous public displays of anti-fracking sentiments by New York communities, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in the state in 2014, citing health and environmental concerns.[xiv] Many upstate New York communities had already declared local moratoriums on fracking prior to the statewide prohibition.[xv] Cuomo’s decision was particularly influenced by the New York Health Commissioner, Dr. Zucker, who took a cautious approach towards fracking: “there was insufficient evidence to affirm the safety of fracking.”[xvi] Dr. Zucker noted that in light of the known risks – and the many unknown risks – he would not want his own family to live near a fracking site.[xvii] Governor Cuomo embraced Zucker’s proactive stance, in effect opting to ensure the safety of New York citizens over the potential for economic gains associated with fracking.
While over the past few years fracking has become a more predominant energy source in the U.S., the industry is beginning to wane. Interestingly, it is not the increased information about health and environmental concerns that are slowing down the fracking industry, but rather market forces – the decline in the price of crude oil. When fracking was on the rise in the last few years, oil prices were over a hundred dollars per barrel[xviii], thereby making fracking an attractive alternative. Oil prices have rapidly declined and are currently less than fifty dollars a barrel[xix], and the Department of Energy expects an average price of sixty-three dollar per barrel over the course of 2015.[xx] The fracking industry cannot compete with the oil industry unless crude oil prices are at least seventy dollars per barrel, according to some industry experts.[xxi] Energy companies that engage in fracking operations, such as Halliburton, have already began to lay off workers. [xxii]
A decline in the fracking industry has economic consequences for rural states like North Dakota, whose involvement in fracking led to population increases and economic stimulus.[xxiii] For example, the town of Williston doubled its population when it became a “fracking mecca” and invested in infrastructure and housing to accommodate industry workers.[xxiv] As a result of the changing prices of oil and declining ability of natural gas to compete, the city is over three hundred million dollars in debt.[xxv] Fracking towns may become reminiscent of the Texas “ghost” oil boom and bust towns of the 1930s and 1940s, which are still posing environmental threats today.[xxvi] This phenomenon, therefore, raises questions over how wastewater wells at abandoned fracking sites will be monitored in future years to come.
Even if the cost of oil does eventually rise, there is no promise that fracking will gain the prominence it once had. Alternative green energy measures may become more economically feasible at that point, and states and communities may be more wary of fracking as they learn more lessons about the economic, environmental, and health dangers associated with such an industry. The future of the fracking industry is questionable given an improved understanding of its environmental effects, public opposition, and change in the market price of oil. Was fracking just a short-term “fad” energy trend to cope with rapidly increasing oil prices a few years ago?
-Kate Lambert is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.
[i] California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater, Russia Today (Oct. 11, 2014, 9:27 AM) http://rt.com/usa/194620-california-aquifers-fracking-contamination/
[ii] Stephen Stock, Liza Meak, Mark Villarreal, & Scott Pham, Waste Water from Oil Fracking Injected into Clean Aquifers, NBC Bay Area (Nov. 14, 2014, 11:52PM) http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Waste-Water-from-Oil-Fracking-Injected-into-Clean-Aquifers-282733051.html
[v] Fracking Wastewater in California Is Full of Harmful, Cancerous Chemicals – Report, Russia Today (March 12, 2015, 5:48 PM) http://rt.com/usa/240145-california-fracking-wastewater-chemicals/
[vi] See supra note ii.
[vii] University of Nebraska- Lincoln, US Drought Monitor California, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA (last visited Mar. 20, 2015).
[viii] See supra note i.
[ix] See supra note ii.
[xi] Fracking Accident in Wyoming Leads 67 People to Evacuate Their Homes, NY Against Fracking http://nyagainstfracking.org/fracking-accident-in-wyoming-leads-67-people-to-evacuate-their-homes/
[xii] Katie Valentine, Pennsylvania Finally Reveals Fracking Has Contaminated Drinking Water Hundreds of Times, Think Progress (Aug. 19, 2014 9:28 AM) http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/08/29/3477184/pennsylvania-fracking-water-contamination/
[xiii] Nick Visser, Texas Family Wins $3 Million Judgment Against Fracking Company Over Contamination, The Huffington Post, Apr. 24, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/24/fracking-contamination-case-texas-judgement_n_5208624.html
[xiv] Thomas Kaplan, Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State, N.Y. Times, Dec. 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/nyregion/cuomo-to-ban-fracking-in-new-york-state-citing-health-risks.html?_r=0
[xviii] Dennis Dimick, How Long Can the U.S. Oil Boom Last?, Nat’l. Geographic, Dec. 19, 2014, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141219-fracking-oil-supply-price-reserves-profits-environment/
[xix] Fred Barbash, America’s Fracking ‘Boom’ Is Having Its Worst Months Ever, The Washington Post, Jan. 26, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/26/americas-fracking-boom-is-having-its-worst-months-ever/
[xx] See supra note xviii.
[xxii] See supra note xix.
[xxiii] Anastasia Pantsios, Plunging Oil Prices Trigger Economic Downturn in Fracking Bloom Town, EcoWatch (Jan. 3, 2015) http://ecowatch.com/2015/01/03/plunging-oil-prices-impacts-fracking-town/
[xxvi] Kate Galbraith, In Texas, Abandoned Oil Equipment Spurs Pollution Fears, Texas Tribune, June 9, 2013, http://www.texastribune.org/2013/06/09/texas-abandoned-oil-equipment-spurs-pollution-fear/